Friday, December 31, 2021

Don't hesitate to grab a slice of Licorice Pizza


The works of Paul Thomas Anderson have dealt with some heavy topics. But there's always been bursts of comedy in these productions that suggest how adept this filmmaker is tickling your funny bone. Even the often bleak There Will be Blood features that hysterical moment where a fight between Daniel Plainview and Eil Sunday ends by cutting to a dinner table where Sunday is sulking while covered in dirt and mud. Anderson's sharpness as a director has come in handy to make these moments as memorably humorous as they are. With his newest feature, Licorice Pizza, Anderson gets to make a whole movie that's just light-hearted gags and hangout vibes. It's a mold that departs from, say, Hard Eight, but it's also a mold that suits the filmmaker nicely. 

Alan Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) met in an innocuous enough manner. It's a picture day at Valentine's High school and Kane is a 25-year-old helping organize everything. Valentine becomes immediately smitten with her and he insists that he take her out on a date. For obvious reasons, Kane s disinterested in the proposition. From there, the duo can't stop hanging around each other, with the pair opting to work as business, rather than romantic, partners on a variety of businesses. The haywire nature of the 1970s means that there's something new around every corner, from a gas shortage to the antics of producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), to ensure that the lives of these two crazy kids will never get boring.

The concept of making a movie with kid leads where the adults are the immature one is not novel. Plenty of other features, especially ones targeted directly at youngsters, have gone down this road. But Licorice Pizza makes this approach feel fresh again simply by adding a quasi-tragic air to its execution of this concept. Watching adult figures in roles of great authority like actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), performer Lucy Doolittle (Christine Erbersole) or even Richard Nixon (seen only through archival footage on television) act even more selfish than the 15-year-old protagonist of Licorice Pizza is a stark reminder of what it means to be a "grown-up".

Valentine and Kane are constantly pursuing avenues that they think will automatically grant them the wisdom and security that they imagine comes with adulthood, that can cure their insecurities as adolescents. But none of the grown-ups seen in Licorice Pizza seem to have everything together. If anything, they've gone mad with power, fueled by insecurities they can never wrangle. We've all seen movies centered on kids where the grown-ups are just immature buffoons. But Licorice Pizza's twist on this concept is to emphasize the consequences of all that buffoonery, to linger on how hard to is to grow up in this kind of world. The incompetence of the cops or the president, fueled by vanity specific to adulthood, can ruin your whole life in the blink of an eye.

Then again, maybe the immaturity of the adults is to just allow for more amusing comic situations for the two leads to interact in, but it's a testament to Licorice Pizza's quietly impressive screenplay that it could be interpreted in this manner. Like so many great comedies, Licorice Pizza can be appreciated as either something deep, rich with sociopolitical commentary or just as something you put on the TV as a reliable feel-good pick-me-up. Like so many films that inhabit the latter category, the success of Licorice Pizza can be measured by just how many lines of dialogue get stuck in your head afterward. Everyone be wary of me throughout January as countless comedic witticisms from this screenplay will be a regular part of my lexicon to an annoying degree.

Anderson's script isn't just chock full of funny lines of dialogue, it's also impressively committed to a hangout vibe that serves the characters and atmosphere perfectly. Rather than handicapping the lives of Valentine and Kane with traditional three-act-structure problems, their existences ebb, flow, and go on about complicated paths, just like real people. It's just wonderful how Anderson can pause things at will to allow a runaway truck or waterbeds to suddenly become the focus of things. In reality, you never know what's going to suddenly consume your life. The laidback storytelling of Licorice Pizza captures that part of daily existence beautifully.

Taking such a chilled-out approach to things also gives the central actors plenty of opportunities to shine, especially Alana Haim in the film's breakout performance. In her first-ever acting role in a feature-length production, Haim comes alive as a firecracker that isn't afraid to speak her mind in any situation. Some of the best moments of Licorice Pizza are just Haim going scorched Earth on everyone around her, especially one unforgettable scene where she lays into her sister's. Haim is a riot in Licorice Pizza, ditto for Bradley Cooper in a small but memorable role that allows him to channel Eric Andre energy as his version of Peters will say and smash anything at a moment's notice.

Though very distinct projects in terms of tone and underlying themes, Licorice Pizza most reminded me of The Master in terms of prior Paul Thomas Anderson directorial efforts. Both are period pieces that aren't afraid to eschew conventional narrative norms in favor of just following around two people and their ever-complicated relationship. In both cases, keeping things so lean and streamlined is an ingenious move and makes for cinema you can't stop thinking about. Going in a more lighthearted direction for Licorice Pizza doesn't zap the substance out of Anderson's work. It just unleashes new ways for this filmmaker to impress, including in his dynamite choices for the film's soundtrack. Hooray for a 1970s period piece choosing unorthodox needle drops instead of the same old tracks we've all heard a thousand times before! 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Steven Spielberg delivers top-rate musical entertainment with West Side Story

In case you aren't aware, West Side Story (originally a Broadway musical in the 1950s and first adapted into film through a 1961 Best Picture-winning feature) is a take-off on Romeo and Juliet set between two street gangs in 1950s New York City. On one side is the Jets, a collection of white teenagers, and on the other side is the Sharks, comprised of Puerto Rican teenagers. The two groups duke it out in the streets with fiery hatred for one another. In the middle of all this conflict, romance blossoms between former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, Maria (Rachel Zegler). Their romance is as forbidden as the passion they feel for one another is unstoppable. This situation produces emotions that run so high they can only be communicated through songs penned by the late Stephen Sondheim. 

Remakes are often such a disappointing hollow shell of familiar classic movies that the prospect of a new take on West Side Story cant help but gear one up to be underwhelmed. Within moments of West Side Story beginning, though, I knew I was in good hands. Nearly 50 years after he helmed Duel, director Steven Spielberg still demonstrates such an impressive command of his camera, which is made apparent through an opening single-take guiding the viewer through decimated remains of an old neighborhood. What used to house families is now being destroyed to make ritzy new domiciles and push out the poor. Without speaking a word, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski quietly unfold the tragic backdrop that inspired the conflict between the Jets and Sharks. 

From there, the commanding visual language of the feature is put to even better use framing the musical numbers. Starting with Dexter Fletcher's Rocketman in 2019, American musicals got over the choppy editing and clumsy camerawork that plagued past modern entries in the genre like The Greatest Showman. Crisp visuals that captured people who could sing and dance, rather than hurriedly darting between big-name movie stars and stunt doubles, became the name of the game. This welcome departure is epitomized in West Side Story, with a cast of Broadway veterans singing and dancing their hearts out with all the emotion they can muster all while Spielberg's precise camera movements capture every detail of this splendid showmanship.

Combining these visual traits with Sondheim's wonderfully detailed lyrics ("You're a Jet with a capital G!" still makes me giggle) makes the opening number of West Side Story not only outstanding but a perfect harbinger of what's to come. Time after time, this movie delivers set pieces that are rich with emotions, mesmerizing cinematography, and incredible choreography. Neither the visuals nor the way the tunes are presented makes any apologies for this being an unabashed musical. On the contrary, Spielberg's take on West Side Story demonstrates the powerful feelings and spectacle that you could only get in this genre.

Even better, screenwriter Tony Kushner keeps finding ingenious ways to make familiar West Side Story tunes fresh again primarily through giving them new backdrops. You may know every lyric to America, but it'll feel brand new thanks to how Kushner ingeniously brings this musical number out into the street of New York City so that visual aids can be used to illustrate the pros and cons of living in the titular country. The underlying brutality of the lyrics in the seemingly comical ditty Dear Officer Krupke, meanwhile, gets reinforced wonderfully through staging this song as something members of the Jets sing to one another in isolation. Rather than rehashing what you already know, West Side Story keeps serving up imaginative interpretations of some of the best musical numbers of all time.

These songs are belted out by an impressive assortment of talented actors, many of them making their feature film debuts. Rachel Zegler, for one, immediately stands out as an instant movie star through her breathtaking singing voice and ability to capture such vivid deep emotion with just a glance. Ariana DeBose, inhabiting the part of Anita, provides similarly unforgettable work while supporting players Mike Faist and David Alvarez are just riveting in their screen presence. As for Ansel Elgort, he's...the weakest link by far in the whole movie. Elgort's got a fine singing voice, but he can't hope to compare to his Broadway vet co-stars. Every time he's paired up with Zegler or Faist, it only reinforces how he's a steep step down from the rest of the cast. 

An underwhelming male lead aside, though, West Side Story is otherwise a fantastic musical, whose greatness is reflected in how even the tiniest details of the production occupied my mind once my screening ended. The use of Spanish dialogue in the screenplay, for instance, is terrific. I love that it's used to not only reflect the interior lives of the Puerto Rican characters but also as a tool of rebellion against authority figures like a cop played by Corey Stoll. Meanwhile, the various sets and practical filming locations for West Side Story are gloriously-realized. No distracting green-screen artifice here, there's a tangibility and depth to the environments that lends instant believability to a story involving people who can't stub their toe without belting out an extended musical number. 

And the colors! West Side Story is unafraid to embrace a wide variety of bright hues in even the most mundane environments. A church date between Maria and Tony involves washing the two characters in streaks of red and blue light while the vividly-colored clothes hanging out to dry in Anita's apartment make any scene set here instantly pleasing to the eyes. Looking on all the things West Side Story does right, it's wonderful how its best parts aren't just nodding to the original (though it is wonderful to see Rita Moreno return as a new version of the character Doc). Though rooted in one of the most famous movie musicals of all time, Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is something that has no problem standing on its own and even suggesting (GASP!) that sometimes, remakes can be quality movies. Perish the thought!

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2021

If the second season of I Think You Should Leave counted as a movie, it would've topped this list without question.

2021 turned out to be just as turbulent as 2020 for the world of feature films. The ever-shifting ground for this medium of artistic expression led to lots of debate regarding how to best exhibit these projects, the presence of streaming in the future of cinema, what kind of films get the most presence in the pop culture landscape, and all sorts of other topics. In the middle of all this debate was, of course, the films themselves. Having seen approximately 205 new releases in 2021 (finally fulfilling my dream goal of watching 200+ new releases in a single year), I can attest that there was plenty of great filmmaking to enjoy this year. 

What made several of these features extra special was how they managed to get filmed and completed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects from some of the best directors working today managed to endure despite the countless complications stemming from an ongoing health crisis. Good movies, much like Christmas at the end of the original Grinch story, "came just the same" despite all the challenges facing films right now.  It's a great notion to carry into 2022, a reminder that quality entries in this artform can endure no matter what the circumstances. 

And now, let's break down the top 25 best movies of 2021. As in prior years, the list organized in alphabetical order save for one title I've deemed to be the very best of the bunch.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner fails to score any points as a sports drama

The most exciting part about American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story comes in one of its first scenes when the film’s titular protagonist walks into a honky-tonk bar in the early 1990s. There’s always a thrill to hearing a song you like show up in a feature film as a needle drop and I experienced that sensation once Neal McCoy’s “Wink” started playing on the soundtrack. There are lots of things I expected to happen in 2021 cinema, but hearing “Wink” in a major theatrical release was not one of them.

More emotions got stirred in my heart recognizing a familiar tune in the background than through the rest of American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Blaring a playlist of my most-listened-to songs on Spotify under the entire feature wouldn’t have made this production any more bearable though. This film is an embarrassingly bad inspirational yarn, the sort of movie that makes you want to sleep rather than cheer. There aren’t just fumbles out on the field here, American Underdog can barely take a few steps out of the locker room without tripping.

Our story begins by following Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) as a college football player. Yes, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin try to pass off Levi as a college-aged kid. John C. Reilly comically playing a middle-schooler in Walk Hard no longer seems like such a stretch! Anyway, Warner is a guy who’s spent his whole life pursuing his dreams of being a football player, it’s all he wants in this world. But challenges keep facing him every step of the way. He never gets a chance to get on the field in college, while his eventual pursuits to get into the NFL keep falling short.

At least he has single mom Brenda (Anna Paquin) and her two kids to bring joy into his life. After her ex-husband abandoned her when she was pregnant, Brenda never thought she could love again. But Kurt Warner changed all that. If he could reinject romance into her existence, who knows what’s possible? Why, even a potential gig with the St. Louis Rams could be waiting in the wings…

The real Warner had an astonishing amount of real-world sports achievements to his name, including becoming a Super Bowl MVP. It’d be interesting to see how he accomplished those feats or even how he navigated day-to-day life with the pressures of those records on his shoulders. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story breezes past such historic in its final 10 minutes and pre-credits on-screen text dump. The screenplay, penned by the Erwin Brothers and Jon Gunn, is much more interested in the melodramatic personal life of Warner.

This sort of intimate focus wouldn’t be so bad if the writers were skilled with penning low-key scenes of human interaction. But good God, they’re not. Characters constantly talk about their dispositions and hang-ups rather than just demonstrating them to the point of unintentional comedy. When they’re not doing that, everyone around Warner seems to speak in quotes tailor-made to be shared as generic inspirational posts on your Aunt’s Facebook page. There are no human beings in American Underdog, just organisms spewing out words so tin-eared it’ll make your skin crawl.

Meanwhile, the script’s pacing is incredibly counterintuitive towards making a compelling underdog story. The primary structure of the plot is that one scene will present an obstacle for Warner while the next scene will immediately wrap up that conflict in a tidy bow. There’s never time to let problems simmer, nor is there any reason to get invested in the drama since it’ll inevitably get erased in just moments. Like the weather in Texas, the sources of conflict in American Underdog are both always changing and deeply unpleasant to experience.

There are even some weird undertones in the second act of the script when Warner is at his lowest-point financially. His football dreams seem farther away than ever as he stocks supermarket shelves. This is when American Underdog engages in a bit of poverty porn while scoring unintentional giggles in presenting Warner using food stamps as disappointing of development as an addict relapsing. Though it aims to appeal to “flyover America”, the film’s approach to economically challenged individuals is shockingly condescending.

And then there’s the odd moralizing in the story, which ends up playing at odds with its sports movie ambitions. The central moral of American Underdog is that winning doesn’t matter if you don’t have people to love by your side. That’s a fine lesson to impart, but it ends up hammering home this concept so much that the shift in the third act to get the audience invested in Warner scoring touchdowns for the St. Louis Rams feels empty. Now the Erwin Brothers want us to be solely interested in winning? Not since CHAPPiE denounced violence while beating up Hugh Jackman has a movie been so confused about its morals.

The use of Christianity in the movie is also strange. The presence of this theology is introduced through Brenda talking to Warner about how important her faith is to her. This stemmed from a childhood encounter with an older lady who said that Brenda was destined for great things by God. From there, American Underdog weirdly plays its two lead characters as Chosen One figures ordained by the Lord. Artists like Carl Theodore Dryer and Martin Scorsese use theology to explore people’s humanity and flaws. The Erwin Brothers, meanwhile, use Christianity to suggest that God is really invested in the outcome of St. Louis Rams games.

But the worst part of American Underdog is how it fails to indulge in the fun hallmarks of sports movies. Where’s the training montage? The fun scenes bonding between the football players? Miracle and Remember the Titans would eat this movie’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Those sports dramas were also considerably better-filmed than American Underdog, with the nadir of its filmmaking coming anytime live-action characters have to stand against comically obvious green-screen backdrops.

A sports movie so generic it’s shocking it didn’t get pumped out by a streaming service algorithm shouldn’t be dragging down likeable actors, but that’s just what American Underdog does. Zachary Levi is a talented guy in many ways, but this drama doesn’t give him a chance to indulge in any of his gifts. He tries his best to lend some humanity to incredibly awkward scenes, like a drawn-out marriage proposal sequence, but there’s only so much one can do. Anna Paquin, meanwhile, often seems like she’s daydreaming about being in better movies. Who could blame her?

The only one exhibiting any life in the cast in American Underdog is Dennis Quaid as coach Dick Vermeil. Coming into the production in the third, Quaid makes the bold decision to play this character with the mannerisms and facial expressions of an impish fairy boy but gives Vermeil the voice of Nick Nolte. The dissonance here is incredible. If the Erwin Brothers had just focused on Quaid’s character for the entire runtime, we wouldn’t have ended up with a good movie, but we certainly would’ve gotten something more interesting.

One of the best parts about sports dramas is how they can tell a story that captivates audiences who otherwise have no interest in things like baseball or football. By contrast, American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story is guaranteed to alienate even die-hard St. Louis Rams and Kurt Warner fans. There’s so much snooze-inducing melodrama and so little interesting football action, it’s hard to tell who this movie is meant to appeal to. Not even utilizing “Wink” can make American Underdog something worth watching. 

The Master is, among other accomplishments, an acting tour de force

We're all chasing freedom.

In one way or another, we're all running towards the prospect of having full control over our lives. Maybe we think if we earn up enough money we can finally grab hold of that status quo or perhaps it's that dream of being in the right place at the right time that gets us out of bed. But none of us are truly free. Whether you're a prince or a pauper, we all have responsibilities, nobody is devoid of answering to a higher power. It's a futile chase, but it's one we keep sprinting towards anyway. Leave it to the insightful gaze of Paul Thomas Anderson to contemplate that existential exercise with an extra profound gaze in his 2012 feature The Master.   

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has just gotten back from fighting in World War II. The conflict and his experience killing other humans, not to mention his own personal mental health issues that existed long before the war began, have left him psychologically distraught. As The Master begins, Quell is adrift. Where does his life go now? But in a seemingly directionless world, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) appears. Running a movement known as The Cause that, among other achievements, claims to be able to allow people to explore their past lives, Dodd takes in Quell. From here, a connection forms as Quell explores a potential new purpose while Dodd tries to bring The Cause to even greater prominence.

Looking back on the initial reviews that greeted The Master, I was surprised by how many critics got stuck up on the question of "what does it mean?" The Master doesn't wear its themes on its sleeves, but it seemed clear (to me at least) what ideas the film is chasing after. Not only is The Master about the elusiveness of total control over one's life, but it's also about the toxic ways we fill the holes in our hearts. Quell is a man who clearly needs serious psychiatric help, but America, in this era, doesn't have a structure in place to help returning soldiers with intense mental health disorders. He's been used for the good fight, but now that everyone wants to get back to "normal", he's being hidden under a rug. Lancaster Dodd's cult is a way for him to find meaning and an anchor in the middle of all this turmoil.

This situation also makes great use of a post-World War II backdrop. For Quell, killing and the psychological turmoil that's stemmed from it has become his norm, what else does he know? What else can he know? He may be finished with the war, but the war is not finished with him. You can't just turn off these elements like a lightbulb. Navigating what his status quo even looks like now makes it possible for him to become seduced by Dodd's cult and make the psyche of this character all the more fascinating to watch unfold. Plus, Anderson's refusal to speed the film up feels like a perfect reflection of exploring a post-World War II landscape. There is no new global conflict to rush into, the future is a terrifying blank canvas for someone like Quell and that's perfectly reflected in The Master's pacing.

Telling the story like this also allows plenty of opportunities for the central performances to breathe, with Phoenix and Hoffman, in particular, sharing a handful of tete-a-tete exchanges that work so well because Anderson refuses to barrel on through to the next scene. Each of these two delivers outstanding work in The Master even they're separated from one another, with Hoffman proving especially impressive. In his screentime, he renders a personality that could believably entice people to follow him to the ends of the Earth while providing hints of the vulnerable human being that, as the character's son puts it, "is making this up as he goes along."

Phoenix, for his part, conveys authenticity, not a melodramatic caricature, in his portrayal of Quell as someone who is psychologically tormented. This actor just kept on delivering outstanding lead performances throughout the 2010s (Her and You Were Never Really Here are his other two crown jewels from this era) and The Master is certainly part of that trend. Phoenix and the other actors are captured by Mihai Mălaimare Jr.'s unforgettable cinematography, which makes glorious use of 65mm film. Take any frame from The Master and it looks like something you could frame on a wall. The way you can take in the rich detail of any object in a shot, the gorgeous way natural light looks on-camera, those bright blue hues of the ocean, it all looks stunning.

Looking back on the initial critical reception of The Master, it's understandable to see so many reviews that were concerned exclusively with figuring out just what the movie means. Is it a Scientology parable? A queer allegory? A political commentary? Maybe it's all those things and more, but what I found so intoxicating about The Master is how it functions so well as all these things at once while also just working as an atmospheric exercise. There's an aching woe at the heart of this project captured by its two lead performances, one that understands that we are never free of greater influences on our lives. We can run, we can hide, we can drink ourselves silly, but the masters that control our lives are never erased. There is pain here in The Master along with boundless ways this central story can be interpreted. Forgive the obvious pun, but it's masterful filmmaking of the most impressive order, another Paul Thomas Anderson home run that may just be the greatest movie of 2012. 

Thankfully, The Matrix Resurrections is no ordinary legacy sequel

NOTE: This review does not feature spoilers, HOWEVER, it does discuss plot points from The Matrix Resurrections introduced in the 15 minutes of the runtime but have not been explicitly talked about in the marketing. If you want to go in cold, read no further! 

It's understandable to be trepidatious about a new Matrix movie like The Matrix Resurrections. After all, what's made the work of Lilly and Lana Wachowski over the last two decades (the latter of whom returns to direct this new installment) has been an exciting willingness to just go for the weird and unexpected. Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, these are not films cooked up in a test marketing meeting over what audiences want to see. They're distinct visions this duo wanted to make and that passion came through vividly on the screen. Can returning to familiar territory yield similarly creatively exciting results?

The Matrix Resurrections begins in the past. Or at least in a simulation of it. Bugs (Jessica Henwick) is watching from a short distance away a scene from the original Matrix where Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss) is working on a laptop when she's busted by a group of cops. A fight scene ensues, which Bugs watches with rapt attention. Right from the start, screenwriters Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon indicate just how meta this production will be. Some legacy sequels, like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, are content to coast on just delivering a straightforward remake of an original movie. This opening scene establishes that Resurrections is more interested in poking, prodding, and tweaking around with the world of the Matrix.

This is made even more apparent when we meet Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a game developer whose most famous creation is a trilogy of video games entitled The Matrix. What are movies in our universe are the hottest console creations on the planet in this universe. Only...could they be more than consoles? Could Anderson's difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction be an indicator that maybe there's some truth nestled in the games he's crafted? He's going to have to pursue such lofty questions after having an encounter with Bugs and a new version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), as well as constantly finding his eye drawn to a lady named Tiffany that looks an awful lot like Trinity...

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections is its strongest section, as Wachowski leans hard on commenting on modern pop culture's fixation on the past. This exploration doesn't result in surface-level jokes about "lol, remakes are bad", but rather interrogations on how the past can be co-opted to either inspire revolution or maintain the status quo. This theme also dovetails into how The Matrix Resurrections functions, to my eyes at least, as an autobiographical film about Lana Wachowski dealing with her place in the modern film industry. In the first Matrix, young Neo was just an everyday person, a youthful troublemaker in line with how new and rebellious to the film industry the Wachowski's were. 

Now, Neo is older, more established. His name is everywhere and everyone in the corporate world has opinions on art that's deeply personal to him. The weariness Neo feels at having everyone reduce his Matrix games down to just being about explosions or an opportunity to make more money through sequels, it comes through with such palpable texture since it feels like emotions Lana Wachowski's been through navigating the film industry. The eventual focus on Neo and Trinity's relationship also functions as a rebuke of modern Hollywood's obsession for turning classic films into objects that can be mined for fan service and NFT's. Through lingering on this core romance, Wachowski is putting the humanity of classic blockbusters (the very ingredient that got audiences to latch onto a film like The Matrix in the first place) front and center once again. 

Despite the extremely thoughtful and personal approach to the world of legacy sequels, The Matrix Resurrections can't help but eventually fall into some of the traps it's looking to critique. These include one too many callbacks to the original Matrix and a few story beats that would be better if they eschewed the conventions of the franchise they inhabit. Meanwhile, the second act gets bogged down in a lot of exposition and the draggy pace in this section of the story reinforces the fact that this didn't need to be a 148-minute long movie. Condensing the runtime even a tad would've made the whole thing that much more effective.

Speaking of effective, the performances, on the whole, are great, with the newcomers especially equipping themselves well to the distinct dialogue and acting style of this franchise. Jessica Henwick continues to prove that Iron Fist did her so dirty, she's great as Bugs, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II once again demonstrates that he's got an incredible amount of charisma in his intriguing take on Morpheus. There's also lots of fun to be had with Johnathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris in key supporting roles, with the former actor even getting to duke it out in fight scenes. Who knew a lead actor from Mindhunter could go toe-to-toe with Keanu Reeves?

The Matrix Resurrections is bound to be a divisive affair given that it's a blockbuster as enamored, if not more so, with deconstructive storytelling, fascinating trans allegories, and commenting on the dangers of capitalism as it is with delivering big action sequences. For me, though, such unique sensibilities are the only reason I'd want to return to the Matrix in the first place. The downright trippy nature of several scenes in the first half had me especially impressed that Lana Wachowski had reinjected a sense of uncertainty into a familiar world. It's nowhere near the best thing either the Matrix series or a Wachowski director has delivered, but The Matrix Resurrections is a serious step up from your average legacy sequel. C'mon, it's time to wake up, go to the theater, and get hooked back into The Matrix.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exercise in fan service done right

Watching the marketing for Spider-Man: No Way Home promise a smorgasbord of Spider-Man villains from across the multiverse, my primary concern was that this movie would function as a lesser cousin to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Happily, the actual film is something much more akin to the 2011 movie The Muppets. Like that delightful musical, Spider-Man: No Way Home has been engineered by people with a passion for the material they're adapting, a consciousness of the rich history of the series they're entering, and a willingness to use the toys at their disposal for maximum fun. The resulting blockbuster isn't challenging or a mold-breaker, but does it need to be when it's also so ridiculously entertaining?

Picking up directly from the events of Spider-Man: Far from Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has had his superhero persona of Spider-Man revealed to the whole world. Grappling with how this development is affecting his loved ones, Parker decides to seek out the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). After this wizard is convinced to come to this teenager's aid, the duo embarks on pulling off a spell that will make the world forget about Parker being Spider-Man. However, something goes awry in this process and instead unleashes figures from alternate universes like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) that have some serious grudges with the web-crawler.

While this is a spoiler-free review, a welcome development in the plot that I'll happily divulge is that Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't forget that what made the first two Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man films so fun. Specifically, that emphasis on shenanigans specific to High School-aged youngsters. Here, anxiety over college applications gets a significant amount of screentime. Meanwhile, the youthful nature of this version of Parker makes for a great contrast to the world-weary baddies who're all too cognizant of their own mortality. Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have a constant consciousness over the fact that this movie stars a 16-year-old and the production is all the better for it.

The writing from McKenna and Sommers also proves deft in juggling so many characters without No Way Home becoming an incoherent mess. While this movie manages to stand on its own, the smartest storytelling cue it takes from Into the Spider-Verse is centering one character above all others in the multiverse shenanigans. With Peter Parker always center-frame, the film avoids falling into the trap of feeling like a feature-length version of that Rise of Skywalker scene where Chewbacca finally gets a medal . Even better, the utilization of material from previous Spider-Man titles manages to outright redeem certain characters that didn't quite work in their original interpretations, especially Jamie Foxx's Max Dillon/Electro.

Granted, that doesn't mean the screenplay gets by without any shortcomings. The plot does have some moments where it's clear getting to a big showstopper moment took precedent above all else, including the build-up to said showstopper moment. In terms of other shortcomings, there are also issues with proper compositing of CG and live-action elements, especially CG stunt doubles with real backdrops. Plus, it might've been nice to get further closure for some of Parker's high school chums from the last two movies, like Flash Thompson (Tony Revelori) and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), the latter of whom is only seen for one scene.

These quibbles aren't immaterial, but they do feel like small potatoes compared to the moments of pure catharsis and excitement that No Way Home regularly delivers. The big set-pieces have an infectiously exciting air to them and feel guided by the principle of doing whatever's fun rather than whatever's grounded or cost-conscious. Leaning into the variety of superpowers across the assorted villains means there's always something new that No Way Home can throw at its superhero protagonist and the audience. On his third blockbuster directing gig, Watts has gotten adept at the theatricality necessary to make these sequences click. It's wonderful that his work behind the camera is as lively as the writing, with some especially imaginative pieces of camerawork working well to accentuate Parker's internal emotions when he's in particularly intense scenarios.

Perhaps my favorite part of Spider-Man: No Way Home, though, is how much leash it gives the talented actors in its packed cast. More scenes than expected are handed off to just letting folks like Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe exchange low-key conversations. That's very much a good thing since the banter is so fun (juxtaposing casual conversation with over-the-top beings like Sandman will never not amuse me) and it gives time for characters like Foxx's Electro to finally come alive as people. Plus, it gives talented performers a chance to do significantly more to do than just reacting to CG objects added in post-production. Dafoe is especially in his element here, not missing a beat in either the menace or nuance that made his Norman Osborne such a compelling figure.

With so many balls to juggle in the air, Spider-Man: No Way Home should be a mess. But much like prior Marvel Cinematic Universe feature Captain America: Civil War, No Way Home manages to make its tidalwave of crowdpleaser moments feel earned, not manipulative. Best of all, it utilizes Spider-Man's past in interesting ways that bring new dimensions to familiar foes as well as the central characters in Jon Watts' interpretation of the character. I'd even go so far as to say the film is an exercise in how to do fan service right with its constant focus on treating its characters like people and a hopeful atmosphere. Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't transcend the world of superhero cinema or deliver the peak of Spider-Man movies (Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man 2 are still superior, for the record). What No Way Home is, though, is the sort of well-made and fun blockbuster confection that's downright irresistible. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Don't Look Up is a messy, though occasionally interesting, plea for the truth

It's the end of the world as we know it. And writer/director Adam McKay feels...not great if his work as a writer and director on Don't Look Up is any indication. This feature uses an impending apocalyptic comet as an extended allegory for climate change, but it's also McKay offering up his perspective on a variety of hot button political subjects, including what topics get the most traction on social media, wealth inequality, white male privilege, the emptiness of daytime television, and so much more! It's a grabbag of buzz-worthy modern topics, all tied together with an apocalyptic bow. The resulting film never achieves the kind of insightfulness or comedy it wants to deliver, but some of the things Don't Look Up throws at the wall do end up sticking, however tenuously. 

Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) have just discovered something troubling. Majorly troubling. There is a comet the size of Mount Everest headed straight for planet Earth. Once it makes contact with our surface, all life on this big blue ball vanishes in the blink of an eye. Teaming up Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the trio is now determined to get the word out. But President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is just one of many Americans who doesn't really care about the comet. Mindy and Dibiasky will need to navigate the fraughtness of modern America in trying to get anyone to do something about the impending apocalypse. 

It's harder than ever to do a film that functions as a piece of ripped-from-the-headlines political commentary since the world is always changing. What's relevant today may be out of touch tomorrow. That having been said, it's still shocking that Don't Look Up feels a bit out of step with the modern political climate. The film's embodiment of the rich, for instance, is way more in line with Steve Jobs than anyone else (though he has Elon Musk's rockets and Mark Zuckerberg's social awkwardness). We've done pastiches of Job so many times before, it's shocking McKay is returning to that well. Ditto recurring jabs at reality TV, which hasn't been a huge part of the American pop culture landscape in years.

McKay's determination to a grand statement on the modern political zeitgeist has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the on-screen characters to just being like Ian Malcolm in the second-half of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novel; vessels for the writer's own monologues that probably should've gone on a Facebook wall. In the third act, DiCaprio's character gives a big passionate speech emulating Peter Finch in Network that talks about how "divided we've all become" that's largely divorced from the context of the story he occupies. It's meant to be a commentary on how we need to all agree on the truth in the modern world, but it needed to feel more specific to the character who was speaking rather just feeling like McKay doing his equivalent to the "America is no longer the greatest country in the world" speech from The Newsroom.

Political commentary is just not Don't Look Up's strongest suit, especially since McKay spends more time shifting the blame of the modern American world onto people enamored with cute dog videos and pop star romances. Much like the weird jab at people excited for Fast & Furious movies in the mid-credits scene of Vice, McKay has a lot more fury for people who like pop culture he doesn't like than institutional forces that inspire apathy towards real-world apocalypse's. His decision to focus on such a limited range of humanity despite the ensemble cast (no queer people and only one prominent person of color in the primary cast of characters) also hinders the project from feeling like it reflects the political zeitgeist of 2021, which is comprised of so many unique voices.

Despite these shortcomings, Don't Look Up does remain at least moderately engaging throughout. It's the upside of throwing so much stuff at the wall, something's bound to stick to it. One thing that does work here is McKay subverting the hopeful escpaist norms of traditional disaster movies (namely oens from the 1990s) with a melancholy vibe stemming from humanity's worst impulses. The camera keeps cutting around to onlookers around the globe watching on their TV's the comet and potential missions to stop it, a form of motnage familiar to viewers of Armageddon and Independence Day. In Don't Look Up, though, those viewers are always greeted with disappointment, not triumphant reminders of unity. 

As the third-act begins and an ever-increasing sense of melancholy seeps into Don't Look Up, it doesn't suddenly turn into a classic ,but I did find its commitment to bleakness at least interesting. McKay doesn't have anything truly new or exciting to say about how we're handling the climate crisis. However, just letting the camera linger on empty roads or people in the background of a shot frantically grabbing items from grocery store shelves conveys the ominous consequences of ignoring dangers under our noses better than a thousand ham-fisted lines of dialogue referencing modern political events. 

By the end, I wished all the quiet despair was hinged on developed characters, but at least McKay commits to the atmosphere and, despite his background in rauchny man-children comedies, knows better than to undercut the tone with abrupt gags.

Meanwhile, the star-studded ensemble cast, presumably assembled as a homage to 1970s disaster movies like Airport, has varying degrees of success. Despite being the most prestigious awards darlings in the cast, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Mark Rylance are on autopilot, delivering broad caricatures but not much else. As for the leads, Leonardo DiCaprio is always at his best playing comically vulnerable people, so he's good here, even if his biggest scenes reminded me too much of similar moments in films like Network and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Jennifer Lawrence is giving her on-screen work her all, but she has a shockingly thin character to play, I kept waiting for McKay's writing to give her a more concretely-defiend human to play. Best performances overall, though, are delivered by Timothee Chalamet and Rob Morgan. The latter actor awakrdly vanishes for about an hour of the runtime miway through the story and Don't Look Up is all the weaker for it.

Don't Look Up is a messy movie in desperate need of trims in the editing room, more distinctive political commentary, a greater amount of personality in its lead characters, and less distractingly artificial looking CG-effects. Surprisingly, though, McKay does turn out to be an effective filmmaker when it comes to capturing the woe of impending doom while his screenplay is tossing so many things out at the audience that it never becomes boring. The result is a movie that functions fine in the moment (it's probably better than McKay's last feature, Vice, overall) Unfortunately, it's also a movie that just ends up adding more noise to an already chaotic political landscape. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Drive My Car is a top of the line model, er, movie

Playwright Anton Chekhov once said, "Any idiot can face a crisis, it's this day-to-day living that wears you out." That sort of living is at the center of Drive My Car, a movie that makes mundane life every bit as captivating, and even more so, than movies that cram their runtimes with wall-to-wall action. The emotions director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is dealing with are so palpably realized, and his direction is confident enough to just linger on the smallest bits of human behavior, it's impossible not to become transfixed. Like Chekhov's writing from years past, Hamaguchi recognizes that confronting everyday experiences in an appropriately complicated way is more than enough to keep your eyeballs glued.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a theater director whose life is plagued by constant troubles. First, his doctor informs him that he's got glaucoma, which is impairing his vision enough that he can no longer drive. Worse yet is that Kafuku's wife passes away suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. After two years pass, Kafuku is hired to direct a production of Uncle Vanya for a theater company in Hiroshima. As part of his gig, he's required to have a driver chauffeur him around. Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) is the woman for the gig and her quiet disposition makes her a perfect fit for the similarly reserved Kafuku. Over time, the wall Kafuku has put between himself and the world begins to crack, though the pain of the past is constantly lingering over his existence.

A movie as good as Drive My Car deserves the most thoughtful analysis possible. Paradoxically, a movie this excellent leaves me in a state where I just want to blabber about my favorite scenes or moments in a stream of consciousness that barely leaves room for breaths. Like a scene where Lee Yoon-a (Yoo Rim Park) and Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan) rehearse a scene for Uncle Vanya out in the crisp Autumn air. Every aspect of the scene is beautiful, the tender and subtle camerawork is the perfect window to this pivotal moment in the play's production, and the two performers share such a meaningful discernible connection in their rapport. No wonder Kafuku sees this particular rehearsal as a pivotal moment for his show! 

The measured pacing of the story of Drive My Car allows scenes like this to unfold in an organic manner. Hamaguchi is never barrelling forward to the next scene, there's a naturalism to how things play out that's utterly masterful. This approach also works great for the quietly tormented emotions that the primary characters live with. There are no speedy cuts or whip-fast pacing to allow these feelings to get lost in a flurry of activity. Instead, they simmer, they fester, they leave an impact. Going this route also gives the viewer a chance to appreciate all the tiny details in the filmmaking right down to how perfect the crunch of snow and leaves under the character's feet sound.

As a cherry on top of this delicious narrative sundae, framing Kafuku's journey as a character to run parallel with putting on a production of Uncle Vanya is a genius move. The assorted parts of the play directing process make for a great physical manifestation of his interior world and offer up several chances for the supporting characters to leave a mark. Also an ingenious idea to use dialogue from this play as a means of expressing bottled-up emotions inside Kafuku. Ditto the visual of Kafuku reciting lines from his plays against a tape in his car. What a great way of immediately telling the audience that this guy is so cut off from others that the only way he can converse with others is through engaging with pre-recorded dialogue.

There's so many distinctive touches like that scattered all throughout Drive My Car that work especially well at ensuring that the pain these characters are enduring doesn't become derivative of other movies. There's an especially singular quality to the eventual tragic backstory of Watari, whose life gets gradually revealed to the audience in a fascinating manner. The complicated emotions that Kafuku must grapple with (namely that he discovered his wife was cheating on him before her demise) also lend such specifity to Drive my Car and capture the real nuances of actual existence. Coping with grief doesn't result in tidy emotions nor are the people we mourn just simple caricatures of good and evil. 

Such richly-detailed material is perfectly handled by the cast, headlined by a haunting turn from Hidetoshi Nishijima. He portrays Kafuku as a shell of a man, one whose haunted nature is captured with just an unforgettable mournful glance. Special props among the supporting cast, though, to Yoo Rim Park, whose exudes such a captivating aura in her role. Her performance also makes use of Korean Sign Language, which is put to great use during the characters acting in Uncle Vanya. Seeing Park's hands capture such dense emotion with the flick of a finger or turn of her hands is astonishing and made me yearn to see an entire Chekhov play done in sign language!

Day-to-day living can certainly wear you out, Chekhov wasn't kidding. Drive My Car doesn't offer an instant elixir to cure those daily blues. But it does offer an unforgettable portrait of that form of anguish. Said portrait comes in the form of a beautiful contradiction as this movie brings together an assortment of people isolated from the world around them in the wake of unspeakable tragedies. Ryusuke Hamaguchi has delivered an outstanding achievement with Drive My Car, an appropriately subdued piece of cinema that still speaks volumes about carving out some kind of existence after disaster strikes. Put the pedal to the metal and check this movie out whenever it comes to a theater near you, it's just sublime filmmaking in every sense.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Being the Ricardos isn't quite worth tuning in to

It’s time to put on a show. Or at least prepare one. It’s Monday morning and the cast and crew of I Love Lucy have five days to execute a new episode of the most popular TV show on the airwaves. But there’s a problem. Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) has been accused of being a communist. Her real-life husband and sitcom co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is convinced there’s nothing to worry about. No major publications are talking about it, surely it’ll blow over. But Ball’s mind is gripped with fear over how this could topple a show she loves with all her heart. As she goes through the next few days getting every detail of this I Love Lucy episode just right, various flashbacks show the audience how Ball and Arnaz met, as well as the ways they’ve betrayed and supported each other over the years. 

Of his three directorial efforts so far, Being the Ricardos is probably the strongest thing Aaron Sorkin has helmed so far. He’s still not a great visualist, but there are more interesting visual flourishes (like the shift to black-and-white coloring for scenes where Ball’s outlining her ideas for I Love Lucy moments) here than in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Meanwhile, Sorkin’s penchant for embracing traditional crowdpleaser moments seems to have a greater purpose here. The whole plot is built on the idea that reality is intruding on this sitcom. As a parallel, deflating moments of harsh truth poke the balloons of joy that Being the Ricardos inflates during seemingly straightforward moments of triumph. 

Though better than Chicago 7 and Molly’s Game, Ricardos still isn’t good enough to challenge my perception that Sorkin is one of those screenwriters whose scripts work bests when handled by other directors. The biggest issue at work here is that the narrative device of setting the story over five days of production on I Love Lucy keeps getting undercut by repeated flashbacks to the past. The simmering tension in this workplace never feels as potent as it should since Sorkin keeps darting all over the place. Ball may be determined to stay on set, no matter how late, to get her show right, but Sorkin shows a frustrating lack of commitment to this crucial locale

The intrusive nature of these flashbacks wouldn't be so much of a problem if they were either illuminating on the interior lives of Ball and Arnaz or at least entertaining. Unfortunately, these digressions don't rise to the challenge on either front. To add insult to injury, one of these visions of the past, set by the pool during daytime, features some truly hideous green-screen work that distracts from the dialogue. These segments also don't give lead actors Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem opportunities to improve their mixed performances, another key factor of Being the Ricardos that leave something to be desired. Kidman's work never feels removed enough from Kidman's default acting persona. I didn't want her to do a straightforward Lucille Ball impersonation, I just kept yearning for her to root me in the story I was watching rather than remind me of her prior performances. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Bardem revels in being a wholly different beast compared to his prior intimidating roles in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall by playing Arnaz as someone with smiles and energy to spare. It's certainly a lively performance, but it also feels too detached from reality to work properly. Bardem's got energy to spare, but he too often lapses into caricature. For vastly different reasons, both Kidman and Bardem struggle to make their portrayals of sitcom legends work as human beings. 

It doesn't help that the duo is surrounded by a pack of character actors in supporting roles who deliver considerably superior and more believable work. J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, for example, provides welcome nuance into a cantankerous heavy drinker who also knows more than you might think, while Tony Hale gets to inject similar levels of complexities into the part of Jesse Oppenheimer, which initially seems like it'll be just another instance of Hale playing a neurotic antagonist. The best of the bunch, though, is Alia Shawkat. That subdued but confident delivery she mastered playing Maeby on Arrested Development turns out to be perfect for executing Sorkin dialogue. She's got the most memorable comic line deliveries in the whole movie, particularly a retort to the curiosity of a writer (played by Jake Lacy) regarding what Arnaz and Oppenheimer could be talking about behind closed doors. 

The strong supporting cast and a solid helping of memorable exchanges that only Sorkin could write make the best scenes in Being the Ricardos a diverting affair. Plus, it's cool that Ball gets framed as a controlling genius without also getting coded as a villain, which doesn't always happen for women with those kinds of personality traits. Ball as depicted here is the kind of character Benedict Cumberbatch can play regularly, but women rarely get to inhabit, so that's nice to see. Even with these attributes, though, the whole movie never abandons the nagging feeling that it should be better than it is. Trying to frame Ball's communist scare and relationship friction between the stars of I Love Lucy as big dramatic events just doesn't work, at least not in this context. The proceedings keep trying to tell you they're massively important without giving you a reason for the urgency. Though it's Sorkin's best directorial effort to date, Being the Ricardos is still a movie that's impossible to fully love.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Encanto works so well it's practically magic

Right after he passed away, the animators at Disney scrambled to figure out what feature-length animation from this studio should look like. To help provide some guidance, people took to asking the question "What would Walt do?" In retrospect, it's a silly question. Who knows what Walt would do? The man was always looking to new horizons in films, television, theme parks, whatever. Trying to fit that creative vision into a tidy box was a fool's errand.

Yet, watching Encanto, I couldn't help but imagine that this was a movie that was following in the footsteps of Walt's vision for feature-length animation. Not necessarily in the fact that it is mimicking the exact jokes, pacing, or narrative beats that one of Disney's cartoons from the 1930s or 1940s would've done. In fact, what's cool about Encanto is how some of its comedy and fast-paced storytelling echo modern animated films from Phil Lord & Chris Miller, a great way of making sure the story connects with modern youngsters. However, Encanto is a movie that, harkening back to the days of Pinocchio, does indeed deliver a tear for every laugh, tells a story that could only be done in animation, and makes you so invested in animated characters that they feel like flesh-and-blood people. 

Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) lives with her extended family in their magical home, the Casita, the perfect domicile for a gaggle of superpowered individuals. Yes, everyone in Mirabel's family has special gifts, like being able to hear anything no matter how quiet, shapeshifting, super-strength, you name it. But Mirabel's the only one in the family that is just a normal human being with no gifts. Her lack of any magical abilities makes Mirabel desperate to please her grandmother, Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero). The outsider of the Madrigal family soon becomes conscious of Casita being plagued by cracks and some strange occurrences surrounding people's superpowers. Abuela alma Madrigal insists everything's fine, but Mirabel is determined to do whatever it takes to help out the family.

The requisite elements of an animated Disney musicals mean you might expect, from that plot summary, for Encanto to begin and its premise with a simple moral related to "being yourself" or how "we're all superpowered, you know". Interestingly, screenwriters Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush (both of whom also direct alongside Byron Howard) opt to take things in a more complicated direction that I won't spoil here. Needless to say, though, things get more than a little thorny in Encanto and the plot does a great job exploring darker material without disrupting the lighthearted vibes of the production. 

What I can talk about is the great storytelling decision to confine the action primarily to the Casita. Individual rooms in this place are like Snoopy's Doghouse or the TARDIS, where they look small on the outside but are expansive inside, so it's not like the whole film takes place in cramped rooms like The Humans. However, keeping things restricted to just this magical house proves to be a great way to get to know the various members of the Madrigal family better. It also lets the conflict between individual relatives simmer properly and allows the focus of the story to rest on the perspectives of Mirabel and company rather than shoving in as many locations as possible. Plus, the limited amount of environments means that the deviations to more surrealistic backdrops for the musical numbers can work like gangbusters through the power of juxtaposition. 

A lot of thought and an equal amount of heart has clearly gone into Encanto. Its commitment to exploring the complicated ways family members relate and feel about each other is especially packed with nuance and poignancy. The detailed nature of the writing extends to how Mirabel is presented as a protagonist. She's such an endearing goofball of a character and perfectly brought to life through vibrant voicework from Stephanie Beatriz. After impressing for so many years as Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Beatriz leaves that character behind in her warm yet realistically imperfect vocals as Mirabel. Botero and John Leguizamo are the standouts in the supporting cast, with the latter especially impressing with the tonally complex nature of his role.

This voice work is applied to computer-animated characters who inhabit a world that's just gorgeous to look at. While many modern animated films, like the 2019 Lion King, throw color out the window in favor of chasing unobtainable "realism", Encanto drenches every frame in vibrant hues and gorgeous-looking sets you could only properly realize in the confines of animation. It all looks so beautiful and the lively camerawork lets you soak in all the details. The only drawback for me in the animation was the occasionally distracting dissonance between cartoony humans and realistic visual details. Textures in the brick floors of Casita or the grass outside look ripped from reality, but the decidedly stylized human characters do not, and putting those together can create some distracting moments. They're few and far between, but once again, I ask the animation studios at Disney to lean on more stylized backdrops (like the ones in Encanto's musical numbers!) and not go for ultra-realism all the time. 

Some quibbles in the balance between realistic and stylized design choices, as well as some predictable plot details, aside, Encanto delivers an extremely entertaining time. It's a superb crowdpleaser movie,  the kind that dazzles your eyeballs and, thanks to a bevy of new tunes written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, pleases the ears. However, it also doesn't forget about touching your heart, with the emotional beats being especially effective thanks to the filmmakers committing to such an intimate scale for this story. I could posture behind a bunch of ramblings to justify why I liked Encanto so much, but any movie that gets me crying and smiling so often has to be worth recommending. Sometimes, it's that simple.